Did I Miss Anything? On Attendance

“Did I miss anything?” It’s a common question from students.

How do you answer it?

You may try directing them to the following classic response from Tom Wayman (Calgary):

How concerned with attendance should philosophy professors be? Philosophy centrally involves learning certain skills and developing certain attitudes. As with most skills, exercising them and witnessing others exercise them is crucial. Since the classroom is the primary arena for that, I think philosophy professors should think student attendance is very important.

What steps, if any, should one take to encourage attendance? Which are effective? Which are too paternalistic?

There were some interesting comments on the subject in a discussion here nearly four years ago, which I excerpt below, but as the audience for Daily Nous has grown somewhat since then, I thought it would be worth revisiting the topic.

M: “I take attendance in large lecture classes (60-120, in my school), but not in small ones, and I back it up with draconian penalties for missing class without excuse. Students get three free absences for the semester, but after that, for each unexcused absence, the student’s COURSE grade drops by one-third of a letter grade. I don’t fail anybody for attendance lapses, but students can drop down just short of failing. My rationale is partly just paternalistic: I am solving the puzzle of the self-torturer for them. But part of the rationale is that I do not think that I am just delivering a service, which they can avail themselves of at their own discretion. Even a large lecture class is made much better by students raising questions for discussion and clarification. So students are not doing their share for the good of the course by not showing up consistently, and I don’t think that there is anything wrong with requiring students to do their share for the course, on penalty of a drop in their course grade.”

Eddy Nahmias: “In my classes I have some minor assignment that students must turn in in person (usually I take up only about half), such as short reading questions or a question about the reading. Hence, students lost points for failing to attend and for failing to do the reading. I can’t see why we would not want to encourage attendance in this or other ways. It improves classroom discussion and student performance. Yes, students are adults. And adults have attendance taken… at their jobs.”

Dale Miller: “I understand the point of view of those who take attendance on the grounds that students who fail to attend have a detrimental influence on class discussion and morale. My own experience, though, is that having students there against their wills and visibly disengaged is even more damaging to the atmosphere. Reasonable instructors can differ, I think, about which effect is more toxic, especially since this probably depends largely on what pisses the instructor off (or at least distracts her) more.”

Gary Bartlett: “I kill two birds with one stone: at the start of class I pose some questions on the reading assignment that was due for that period. (I use clickers for this.) And their performance on those questions counts significantly towards their grade. This both motivates them to attend and motivates them to do the readings—two things that very many of my students would otherwise often not do.”

Av: “A couple commenters… say that it is the students’ choice whether they wish to attend classes and thus succeed, but that seems to assume that succeeding in a class simply means doing well on exams/papers. But that is a false assumption—perhaps dangerously so. (It certainly relies on a great deal more confidence in the thoroughness of one’s other assessment measures than I am able to muster about mine.) Succeeding in a class means learning the material. Those who do not attend classes regularly are likely (though of course not guaranteed) to have learned less than those who do attend regularly. (And are likely to have learned less of the material which is not tested on exams/paper assignments.) Thus if grading is a measure of learning, then it is quite reasonable to grade students on attendance, at least for most philosophy classes.”

Dana Howard: “I don’t take attendance directly, but I do incentivize it… Throughout the semester I have around 10 in-class activities: group activities mostly, close reading of a specific passage from the text, argument reconstruction, debates, comparing the views of different authors, etc… Student participation grade starts at full credit… every time a student misses a class activity, they lose 1 point. Final grades may thus be adjusted up or down by as much as one full grade for exceptionally consistent or inconsistent participation. I have found that this system is fairly effective in keeping students coming to class. Perhaps even more effective than when attendance was taken directly. Students like starting off with the 100% for class participation grade, they seem to care about maintaining their high average on this front, and they do not know when the next in-class activity will come.”

Discussion welcome.

P.S. Wayman answers some questions about his poem at his site.

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